OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens will switch to a natural grass field at M&T Bank Stadium next year after using an artificial surface for the last 13 seasons.
Head coach John Harbaugh confirmed the change on Friday as the Ravens will play their home games on natural grass for the first time since 2002. Discussions began months ago with players having input in the decision.
“It kind of epitomizes what Baltimore is all about, the history of football in Baltimore,” said Harbaugh, who acknowledged he might have lobbied for the change. “To me, a Baltimore football team should be playing on a grass field in Baltimore. It’s kind of a recognition of that.”
With safety a major topic of discussion as it relates to concussions and lower-extremity injuries on artificial surfaces, most Ravens players welcome the news of being able to play home games on softer natural grass. Among AFC North division foes, Pittsburgh and Cleveland have grass surfaces while Cincinnati plays on an artificial surface.
Currently, seventeen teams in the NFL play their home games on natural grass.
Having suffered anterior cruciate ligament tears to both knees during his seven-year career, cornerback Lardarius Webb was among the many players pleased with the decision to make the switch next season. Over the years, veterans have often lamented the wear and tear of practicing on the harder artificial surface in the field house compared to working on their three outdoor grass fields at the Ravens’ Owings Mills practice facility.
The Ravens maintain that their field is among the best artificial surfaces in the league, but the preferences of players and coaches were clear.
“With my surgeries that I’ve had, I can tell after the game if I’ve played on that hard turf or have played on grass,” said Webb, who suffered ACL tears at M&T Bank Stadium in 2009 and 2012. “It’s a black-and-white difference. I just walked off practice and I can tell the difference from practicing on the turf field and outside [on grass]. It’s just a difference.
“We’re looking at the numbers. They say injuries happen more on turf than on grass. Simple as that.”
The Ravens played on natural grass at M&T Bank Stadium from the time it opened in 1998 through the 2002 season, but insufficient sunlight led to concerns with the consistency of the field, especially in the later weeks of the season. This led to the decision to install Sportexe Momentum Turf for the 2003 season, which was used until 2010 when the Ravens switched to the updated Shaw Momentum 51 turf.
According to Harbaugh, the organization has done extensive research on what type of grass to use as well as on ways to work around the sunlight concern, which would include using artificial light and replacing sod in the middle of the season if necessary. The natural surface will be a mix of Bermuda grass and some rye grass, which would be consistent with what the team has used for its practice fields in Owings Mills.
“There’s been a lot of technological advances with the grass from what I’m told in terms of the way our stadium is configured,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t get a lot of sun. That was something that was a big consideration as far as the turf originally. But our grounds people have done a great job of researching it and they feel like they have the type of grass now that can thrive in there.”
Justin Tucker is taking a wait-and-see approach on how the natural surface might impact the kicking game, especially in harsh conditions when a natural surface can deteriorate rapidly.
The fourth-year kicker has made 10 of 15 field goal tries at home in 2015, with all five misses from 50 yards or beyond. In his career, Tucker has gone 56-for-69 on field goal attempts at M&T Bank Stadium compared to making 65 of 69 on the road.
“It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up throughout the course of a season,” Tucker said. “I welcome the challenge. For me, I don’t think it really matters too much. It only matters if you let it matter. We’re going to do the exact same thing we always do and prepare every single game for the surface that we’re playing on.
“Maybe we’ll just kick on grass a little bit more.”